Virginia Tech’s 35-17 loss Saturday at Pittsburgh brought out a full range of emotions from the Hokies fan base.
Comments on this blog have ranged from the level-headed (“Tech looked unprepared”) to the ridiculous (“Frank must go!”). It’s good to see that an unbridled passion for football — and the absurdity of thought that comes from tough losses — isn’t just exclusive to the SEC.
Here are five thoughts coming out of the game:
1. The biggest goat Saturday was the defense.
From beginning to end, Bud Foster‘s crew looked overmatched. And it wasn’t just schematic. Pitt was tougher than Virginia Tech. Its line pushed the Hokies’ front around. Its running backs ran the Hokies over. And its receivers went up and made plays over the Hokies. The question before the game was if Virginia Tech’s offense could put everything together to keep the Hokies in the game. And while the offense didn’t play particularly well, the defense, which gave up an astonishing 537 yards, was the group that fell much more short of expectations.
The storyline before the season was that this could be among Foster’s best units. That seems absurd now. The Hokies talked about allowing 13 touchdowns in the span of a year like some of their great teams. They’ve allowed eight through three games. The defensive line hasn’t been nearly as active as Tech hoped. It had only one sack yesterday against a Pitt team that gave up six to Cincinnati. The linebackers, along with others, missed all sorts of tackles. And the secondary was not sharp. After a few games, it makes you wonder if Torrian Gray will revisit his shuffled lineup, with Antone Exum at cornerback and Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett at the safety spots. It’s early, but they haven’t looked all too comfortable in their new roles.
Foster’s crew has come back from bad performances in the past. The Miami game last year was not the Tech defense’s brightest day (519 yards, 31 points allowed), but the Hokies bounced back to have a top-10 defense nationally. They’ll need a similar turnaround after Saturday’s debacle.
2. The running game is the biggest goat this season.
If you’re looking for single-game problems, the defense stood out Saturday. But if you’re looking for season-long problems, it’s the running game, plain and simple. Virginia Tech had 59 rushing yards Saturday, with only 22 coming from its tailbacks. The game’s direction was no doubt part of the reason for the low total (you don’t run the ball exclusively when you’re down 21-0), but the Hokies have not been able to simply line up and run the ball when they want to against anybody. Their run totals so far this season — 96, 187, 59. They haven’t had two games with fewer than 100 rushing yards in a season since 2009, when Alabama and Nebraska held them below the century mark. But those were two all-time rush defenses. It’s safe to say Tech has not played one of those yet this year.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. It’s clear at this point that the offensive line is simply not getting the push that’s required to open some of these holes, or at the very least, isn’t good enough to do it on a consistent basis. The biggest illustration of that is Tech’s short-yardage tries Saturday. In the third quarter, Logan Thomas was stuffed on a sneak on third-and-1 before Michael Holmes got stopped on fourth-and-1. Neither attempt appeared close. And neither ballcarrier could get close to the line before a defender was on him. That’s on the line.
But the running backs have to shoulder some of the blame too. Shane Beamer has long insisted that he has four running backs he can trust to put out there. But it appears to be along the lines of the saying about quarterbacks: if you have four running backs, you have no running backs. The Hokies don’t look like they have the guy who can shoulder the load this year. Holmes had 6 yards on 9 carries Saturday, with a costly fumble. Coleman had 4 carries for no yards. The back who looked the most comfortable was Martin Scales, who showed great burst on a 10-yard run and ran right up between the tackles a few plays later on a 6-yarder. He had only four carries, though. You wonder if that will increase if subsequent weeks. The bottom line, though: there isn’t a David Wilson in this group. And for onlookers like myself who thought the running back would be easily replaceable within the scheme, that’s clearly not the case.
3. Logan Thomas doesn’t look the same.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, you think so, doctor?’ Yes, it’s an obvious statement, but one I’m making anyway. He had his second-lowest completion percentage in a game as a starter, completing 14 of 31 passes for 265 yards. A lot of those yards came on Marcus Davis‘ long touchdown, which was a short pass that went for 75. And Thomas uncharacteristically threw three picks, a couple of which were ugly throws.
I’ve read commenters say Thomas’ spring trip to work with George Whitfield messed with his mechanics. I think that’s nonsense. Whitfield helped coach Cam Newton and Andrew Luck into the NFL. He knows what he’s doing. I think Thomas’ struggles are more a function on his comfort in the pocket. He says mechanically he’s fine. But he doesn’t seem to always be set when he’s throwing the ball. That might be related to his protection. If you are feeling the pressure, it makes you throw before you’re set. It seemed like a couple of Thomas’ picks Saturday came when he wasn’t in a good position to throw it. Remember, last year’s o-line, for all the inexplicable criticism it took, tied for the ACC lead with the fewest sacks allowed in the ACC with 17. This year’s group has given up six through three games, on pace for 24 and with the heart of the ACC schedule still to come. Whatever the reason (and we’ll be sure to ask Mike O’Cain about it Monday; he usually gives a fair assessment), Thomas doesn’t look comfortable.
4. If nothing else, Virginia Tech has found its punt returner.
If you’re looking for a silver lining from this game, it’s that Jarrett could be one of the more exciting punt returners Tech has had in a few years. He looked very natural returning a punt 94 yards for a touchdown, making a seamless cutback to avoid the punter after Ronny Vandyke took out two Pitt defenders with a fantastic block. That’s returns of 94 and 46 yards in the last two weeks. Tech is fifth nationally in punt return average, and Jarrett’s 49.0-yard average would be first nationally if he had enough returns to qualify. And although he muffed one punt Saturday, he was interfered with, so that one can be explained away.
The kick return game, on the other hand, could use some work. Both J.C. Coleman and Demitri Knowles made some questionable decisions to take the ball out of the end zone. Both were probably trying to make big plays, but it gave Virginia Tech some horrible field position as a result.
5. This still doesn’t change much in terms of the Coastal Division.
Tech fans wanting more than a shot at the ACC title aren’t going to like this, but it’s true: this doesn’t change a whole lot in the Hokies’ pursuit of the ACC championship. Although it was a bad loss to a team that had looked lost the first two weeks, it was still a non-conference defeat. It has no impact on the ACC standings. And the ACC’s Coastal Division does not look like it’s full of world beaters this year. Virginia got housed by Georgia Tech and is about to have a full-fledged quarterback controversy. Miami was last seen giving up 498 yards and 52 points to Kansas State. North Carolina beat the tar out of Elon but has since lost to Wake Forest and Louisville (although the Tar Heels looked feisty at the end of the Louisville game). And Duke, as I have written before, is Duke.
The biggest challenger remains Georgia Tech, which righted the ship after the season-opening loss with two wins. But the Hokies have the head-to-head win, which amounts to two wins in the Coastal standings with tiebreakers. Virginia Tech’s conference slate is a little tougher than the Jackets. The Hokies play both Clemson and Florida State, who appear to be the ACC’s two legit teams. Georgia Tech only plays Clemson of those two. So things could get tight, but I’d still consider the Hokies a good bet to win the Coastal, simply given the state of the challengers.